Emergent Design Works for Cleaning Up Offices Too

I'm a big fan of emergent schedules (see the rolling wave planning and low tech scheduling entries). I also write that way. I generally have an idea of what I'm going to say, but I'm never quite sure how I'm going to get there until I'm done writing.

Emergent design also works for me as a way of organizing. Many of you have heard me complain about my messy office — for the last ten years 🙂 I never could understand why my office was so messy and disorganized until yesterday. After all, when I worked inside other people's companies, I was able to organize my office and know where everything was. I just wasn't able to do that with my own office.

At first, my office was literally too small. When you're self-employed, you need room for stuff — printers, paper, supplies — as well as room for the projects you're working on (including projects for which you need to do research). So, for the first few years, my office was too small to organize well. I was able to expand my office, which helped for about three weeks, but then I couldn't keep it picked up.

What I realized yesterday (when Esther helped me organize my office) was that I can't file stuff when I don't know how to organize it. I'm an “everything out” person — I like to be able to see all the things I'm working on. So, filing behind doors doesn't work for me. And if I don't know how to file it, I can't. But here's the breakthrough: Esther explained I don't have to know how I'm going to file it permanently — I only have to know how I'll file it for now. I can change my filing system when I know more.

Ok, so maybe you folks all figured out that emergent design works for filing systems, as well as for project scheduling , writing, and systems architecture. But it was news to me!

If you're having trouble cleaning up your office, try what I did. Take a storage box and put a bunch of hanging folders in it. Take a bunch of file folders and put them on one side. Take one of your piles. For each piece of paper, decide if you can throw it out or recycle it. If not, see if it fits in an already-existing folder. If not, take a folder, write something descriptive, and put the piece of paper into it. Place the folder in the storage box. Repeat for all your piles. At the end, look at the stuff in the box. If you want to change the name or file it somewhere else, do so. If not, leave it. I'm leaving my stuff because I still don't know where it all goes. But it's no longer in piles on every horizontal surface 🙂

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